How to Clean Cams

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Getting humbled in the art of cam-cleaning is a rite of passage for aspiring tradsters. You know the story: The second, a trad-climbing newbie, fiddles with a cam for what seems like eternity before declaring it totally stuck. Welded. Fixed. Beyond saving. The more experienced leader isn’t buying it (and doesn’t want to buy a new cam, either), so he raps down to investigate—and cleans it in three seconds flat. Here’s how to retrieve those stuck cams easily and quickly.


Hold up. Before you reach for the trigger, think about how the cam most likely went in. If there’s a constriction below the cam, it may have been set from above, or vice versa. Look for pods or other openings that the cam may have been slotted into with lobes contracted. If it went in that way, basic geometry (and logic) demands that you can also get it out that way.


Now it’s time for the obvious first go at extracting a cam. Squeeze the trigger and gently wiggle the cam in the direction you think it went in. Be careful not to push it farther back into the crack or move it up or down into a tighter placement, which “overcams” the device and makes it even more difficult to get out.

Fig. 1


Don’t limit the use of your nut tool to just nuts. These multi-use devices are ideal for reaching the trigger of a cam that is shoved way back into a crack. Poke your tool into the crack and hook the trigger; try to get as close to the stem as possible for better leverage and even pulling. If you pull one side more than the other, it could contract the lobes unevenly and make the cam more stuck. It helps to stabilize the cam by the gear loop (or as far up the unit as you can reach) with your other hand.

Nut tools can also be useful for directly pulling one lobe of the cam at a time. Even when it feels like you can’t pull the trigger any more, the cam lobes can still be moved with the tip of the tool. This allows for the tiniest bit more contraction and, with it, hope of removing the cam. If you’re having trouble reaching the trigger with a nut tool, you can also try looping the trigger with the cable on a nut, or with two nut cables—one on each side of the trigger. Clip the nuts with a biner and pull (fig. 1).


For a really stuck cam, you’ll probably need both hands. While you can just hang on the rope, sometimes the stretch can make it difficult for you to get into the ideal position. Check out what gear you’ve already cleaned and see if it’s possible to place another piece above the stuck cam. Attaching yourself to the newly placed piece—with a draw, runner, or rope—can put you in the optimal position to work on that jammed piece.


You’ve heard the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Well, if what you’re doing isn’t working, stop making yourself insane and try something new. Move the cam down instead of up, back first before coming forward, or add more wiggle. It can also help to change your perspective. Hang below or above the cam, which will also change the angle you’re working the cam out from.


Persistence pays off. You don’t see too many completely stuck cams out there because a little time and effort usually pays off. If it seems hopelessly stuck, take a deep breath, relax, and then try again.

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